I have come to absolutely love Rivers Solomon’s writing, whether it’s about a neuroatypical woman on a generation ship, mermaid-like creatures with the weight of history on their shoulders, or this creepy, haunting science fiction tale about a young mother searching for freedom. Solomon is a brilliant voice in SFF and I can’t wait to see whatever they come up with next.
by Rivers Solomon
Published: MCD Books, 2021
eBook: 368 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 2 minutes
My rating: 7,5/10
Opening line: The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt.
Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.
But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.
To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.
There’s something about Rivers Solomon’s writing that just grabs me. Out of the books I’ve read by them, this was by far the most uncomfortable. There is violence, body horror, religious fanaticism, and all sorts of other things that make me queasy. But if I’ve come to learn something about Solomon as an author, it’s that they don’t shy away from difficult themes but rather face them head on, exploring them and turning them into fantastic stories. Sorrowland is no different.
The book begins with Vern, a young girl (although it took me forever to figure out just how young), who is running through the forest. She’s running from some unnamed fiend that we will learn about later. She’s also super pregnant and about to give birth to twins. Without help or medication, without any other humans, Vern gives birth to her two boys Howling and Feral, and the little family proceeds to somehow live in the forest, always in hiding, constantly vigilant.
Vern has grown up in Blessed Acres, also called Cainland, a religious compound that may have gotten started by noble ideas but has definitely drifted off into exactly what you’d expect. One powerful man gets to say what happens in Cainland, all the others have to follow. For what began as a place for Black people to live in peace, independently of white people’s economy and society which always puts them at a disadvantage, is now a strict religious cult whose leader one day decided that Vern is just the kind of girl he’d like to marry. Never mind that she’s still a child herself and has no interest in men generally or him in particular. Through flashbacks we get glimpses of life in Cainland, of Vern’s mother, Vern’s best friend, and everything that Vern has run away from.
To be alive meant to lust after connection, and better to have one with the enemy than with no one at all.
You’d think being on the run with two newborns, living off the forest, and simply staying alive would be enough for a novel. And you’d be right, but Rivers Solomon is full of ideas and they don’t write easy stories if they can write very complicated ones. So in addition to raising two children in the forest by herself while reguarly being hunted by the fiend, Vern’s own body is changing in strange ways she doesn’t understand. It starts as an itch here, a skin thingy there, but over time, it becomes clear that something is happening to Vern that she can’t control and that doesn’t happen to people normally. Finding out what that is, what caused it, and what it means for Vern’s future is part of what makes this book so intriguing.
But there is so much more happening in this book that I can’t tell you about because it’s such a pleasure reading it for yourself. Pleasure may not be the right word, as this happens to be a very dark tale with no guaranteed happy ending, with many difficult situations, tough decisions, and quite a bit of body horror added to the mix. But it’s not only the changes in Vern’s body or the sometimes graphic descriptions that make this a tough read. Vern is a young Black lesbian whose gender identity doesn’t fall into a binary system. She is called “she” throughout this book and she gives birth right at the beginning, but other than that, she doesn’t much hold with gender roles. She even meets another character who goes by she/her pronouns but who may not have sexual organs that fit perfectly into a male/female binary.
In recent years, I’ve read more and more books with a range of diverse characters written by diverse authors, but I’m always happy when I get to meet a character who teaches me something new or shows me different aspects of the world. I didn’t spend all that much time thinking about Vern’s gender or sexual preferences (she is into women but that’s also not a 100% rule) but I found it super interesting to read about these aspects of her character as well as the way she explores her own sexuality throughout the book. Because as science fictional, occasionally dystopian, and survival-focused this story may be, it is also a coming-of-age tale.
It’s super hard to talk about it without spoiling things, so let me just repeat that Solomon tackles dark and difficult themes head on. They don’t sugar coat anything, they don’t try to make their heroines look pretty or keep their hands clean so it’s easier for us to like them. Vern isn’t the kind of character that I always agree with or even understand, but she reads very much like a real person! I loved following her on this crazy journey, finding out snippets of her past, seeing how she’s raising her children (“unconventional” is a huge understatement, as you can imagine), and how she falls in love and learns to trust people. The science fiction aspects of the story simply added a layer of awesome and made sure we get a few cool action scenes that keep us at the edge of our seat. But, like Solomon’s previous novels, deep down it’s a very personal tale about one young woman finding her place in the world ancd coming to terms with who she is.
I can’t say this was always fun to read because the subject matter is so dark at times, and things seem so hopeless and terrible at others, but I loved the book anyway. And if it hadn’t already been the case, this would have cemented Rivers Solomon’s place on my list of auto-buy authors. Whatever they write next, I’m here for it.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!